Perception and communication must align. Perception is the way we look at, understand, and interpret our world. Everyone’s perception is unique and coloured by a great many things. Environmental factors, culture, religion, our friends, innate personality type, temperament, our love languages, all impact how we view the world. I’ll cover all these factors (and more) in future articles. But in this one, let’s see if we can’t understand why we’re not always right…even though we’re usually quite convinced that we are.
I teach people how to understand their innate personalities and how to understand those of others to create harmony in their workplace, their family, and their life as a whole. But for the moment, let’s consider society at large.
Real communication happens less and less frequently in our modern world. We all have more friends than people ever had before, but we’re also the loneliest we’ve ever been. And our understanding of others? That’s also at an all-time low.
The 3 key elements that make up communication
Our communication skills need to function at a high level and there are three elements that convey meaning when we communicate:
- Body language
- Voice tone
As I write this, the world is in the midst of waves of lockdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing. As a result, we’re unable to connect physically or use body language effectively. We’re mostly unable to see people. Or, if we can, we see them through social media or Zoom, where body language is hard to read. We are unable to touch one another. And when communicating face-to-face, our facial expression is often missing, hidden behind a mask.
Increasingly, we use other types of communication where only our words are used: social posts, text messages, direct messages, and email. Without the other two elements of communication — voice tone and body language, our ability to gauge a person’s mood or feeling through verbal cues are compromised. This is worrisome. Why? Let me share some data with you about how much of our communication happens through each of the three elements of communication:
- Body language conveys 55% of our meaning.
- Voice tone conveys 38%.
- Words convey only 7%.
Care to hazard a guess about what is the most common form of communication used today? You got it. Words.
Think of how often you text or email or go on Instagram to send a message. When we use only words, we lose 93% of how we interpret meaning. That’s a lot of missing information!
How many times do we make a small mistake when texting or fail to communicate tone, and end up upsetting someone accidentally? Remember, there’s no emotion to written words, apart from those you explicitly add using emojis.
So, what does this mean for us as a society when we’re no longer able to see people’s body language, to understand how what we’re saying (and how we’re saying it) affects them? We have no physical cues for sensing a whole range of emotions: sadness, anger, happiness.
Should she stay or should she go?
My first memory of differences in perception was when I was fourteen years old. My brothers, my mother and I were at the airport farewelling my mom’s mother who had come over from England and stayed with us for six weeks.
Mum hadn’t seen her mother for many years, and it was very unlikely she’d be seeing her again in the near future. As the plane took off, we all waved at the small window next to where we thought she’d be seated, and my mum was sobbing.
Taller than her, I reached out and hugged her. Putting my head on hers, I said, “Don’t worry, mum. You’ll see her again one day.”
She sobbed even harder, and then lifted her head up and she looked at me and said, “I’m so glad to see her go.”
Our tears turned into laughter when we realised how mistaken I’d been about the reason for them. I was thinking my mum was heartbroken. But she was shedding tears of joy that her mother had left. What a different perception I’d had. If we hadn’t spoken about it, I never would have known!
Think about that. There was no lack of human contact, or verbal language, or listening skills. Yet my perception of the cause of my mother’s tears was completely wrong. What chance, then, do we have when the least important element of communication — our words — is the most used one in society today? Are we doomed?
Striking the right tone
Now let’s consider voice tone. Without voice tone, we’re unable to detect the emotions that might take place in a verbal conversation with someone. How do we learn to cope with someone’s anger, sadness, distress, annoyance, or happiness when we don’t know how it sounds or how to relate to it? People’s perception often differs from ours.
My husband Paul is a kind man. But he has an impatient tone of voice; it’s very short and to the point, although he’s oblivious to it. For many years, he did the banking for our business and used to go to his favourite bank teller to deposit the money. It wasn’t until many years later that this person confessed to him, “When I first met you, I thought you were rude and arrogant. But now that I know you, I realise what a lovely man you are.”
Even with all the communication elements in play, it took years of personal face-to-face interaction to build a positive relationship and overcome the negative tone of his voice. Has that ever happened to you? Misunderstandings due to voice tone?
With our communication reduced to 7%, what does this do to our relationships with family, friends and colleagues? What is it doing to our communication? And our children’s communication? How is it impacting our children’s social skills and the development of their ability to get along with one another?
The current trend of words-only as our major communication method may be seriously impacting people’s mental health and resilience. We need to see and hear people. Lack of perception of where another person’s coming from creates so many different reactions to one situation.
A battle of words
When Cass was in her late teens, she came into the kitchen in a bad mood.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I’m having a fight with my boyfriend,” was her response.
I asked her what she was saying to him. “I’m not talking to him, I’m texting him,” she said.
I looked at her incredulously. “You have to be kidding me. How can you fight via text? You don’t know how angry people are when you can’t see their faces or hear their voices.”
She just looked at me and walked out. She came back an hour later, smiling and happy and said they’d made up. I just shook my head.
What will happen when these young people move in together and have a verbal fight using angry tones and body language. They won’t be able to simply close the app. They can’t put the other person on ‘silent’ or hide away in their room. How hard is it going to be for that generation as they grow into adulthood?
Remember, there’s no emotion in written words, apart from those you add in emojis. There’s no helpful hint for us to read how the other person feels about either the message you just sent or how they felt before you wrote it.
Look deep into my screen
These days, people don’t know how to handle other people’s physical and verbal emotions. Often, they haven’t witnessed them in their daily lives. Parents, too, often avoid physical and verbal confrontation with their children by pacifying their kids’ emotions (and very often their own) by simply handing their children an electronic device to keep them quiet.
We were breakfasting in a hotel a couple of years ago when we observed a five-year-old child playing a game on an iPad. The game was so loud that it disturbed everyone around him. While he was watching the screen, absorbed in his game, his mother spoon-fed him his meal as she, too, stared at her mobile phone, texting a message to someone.
We were blown away.
What hope did that child have to handle what life would throw his way? What social skills were being taught? How to eat politely in public? How to sit still without electronic distraction? How to chat socially while out? How to actually feed himself? Where was the talking? The facial expressions? The emotion? Where was the communication?
As a society, what are we not teaching our children? Many parents are not teaching their children that emotions are natural and ever-flowing. These children are not taught the skills of negotiation, of disciplining their own emotions, of accepting that it’s okay to be angry, sad, impatient, annoyed, or happy. They don’t know or understand the concept of waiting for their own turn. Therefore, their perception of the world is less resilient, more self-absorbed, and they’re unable to self-regulate and discipline their own emotions. What does this create? A society of anxious, emotionally underdeveloped people. How can we fix this?
Fixing perception and communication
I’m going to ask you some questions and I want you to think about your answers, because we’re all surrounded by people (even if not physically as closely as pre-COVID times):
- How well do you understand yourself?
- How do you understand how you think? Your beliefs? Your values?
- How do you feel about yourself?
- How well do you understand the people that you spend time with?
We work, live and play with people, but most of the time we don’t actually ‘get’ them. How many of us have formally studied the dynamics of people and human interaction. Do we do it at school or at university? Of course, some of us do, but it’s rare in the population at large to have formally learnt ‘people skills’. But being with people is the most likely thing that’s going to happen in your day — nearly every day. So, consider how other people’s views of the world may be different from ours and how easy it can be to misunderstand and misinterpret what people do and say, even when we’re making use of all of the elements of communication.
A ferry bad misunderstanding
My daughter was waiting for a ferry after a weekend away with a group of friends on a small island about 50 minutes from the mainland of South Australia. She texted me saying that the seas were very rough, was a bit nervous (she gets seasick). About ten minutes later, she sent me another text saying, “It’s so windy. Going to be shutting it.”
I immediately started to stress. Paul and I began to discuss what accommodations were available on the island — it was already 3:30 PM. It would be the last ferry of the day and there were three of them that needed to find accommodation — quickly. Before contacting one of her friend’s parents, I texted her again to ask her what she was going to do about it.
“About what?” she responded.
“The ferry,” I said. “You said they were shutting it.”
She sent back a text with a laughing emoji. “I meant I was shitting it,” she said. “You know how I hate boats!”
One letter, ‘u’ not an ‘i’ had changed my whole perception of what was happening. My reactions and thoughts were totally different from hers. I was ready to find her a place to stay. She was just scared of the ferry ride. Ah…the joys of texting.
From walking to running
It was a public holiday and my husband suggested a walk on the beach. I agreed. And as we organized ourselves, our son Jack asked if he could accompany us. Knowing full well he was after a coffee and perhaps some breakfast, we agreed. We do love a bit of bonding over mealtime.
As we started walking, Jack and I realized that Paul wasn’t with us. We looked behind and there he was dawdling along the water’s edge. We went back to him and asked what was wrong. He said, “Well, when I said ‘a walk with your mum’, I was thinking that we’d take it easy, hold hands and walk along the water, looking over at the horizon.”
I looked at him and rolled my eyes. I said, “You know me. If I’m going for a walk, it’s for exercise. And it’s fast.” We agreed that Jack and I would meet him in half an hour at the coffee shop.
As he proceeded to amble down the beach, Jack and I kept walking fast. And then Jack turned to me and said, “Let’s run!”
I looked at him and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I’m too old to run.”
He replied, “When I said I was going for a walk, I was thinking ‘slow jog’.” So, off he ran down the beach.
When we finally all reassembled for coffee, I said to them both, “Next time we decide to ‘walk’, we need to discuss what kind of walk we’re talking about,” as our different perceptions of that one word (“walk”) meant totally different things to all of us. If three people can misconstrue one word, what does that mean for every conversation we have with people? And that was using our voices and our body language.
Swimming in different lanes
My husband’s a supervisor at our swim school. His job is to talk to parents and work with children to improve their swimming. He loves it and he’s an expert at it. I was working reception one day when a gentleman approached me frowning. He asked, “Who’s the man at the end of the pool?”
I looked up and saw it was Paul. I didn’t bother mentioning he was my husband and asked the man why he needed to know. He told me he was angry because Paul had humiliated and upset his child by removing him from his class, making him swim in another lane, and then putting him back down into a class that was below his skill level. I smiled at him, asked him to wait. I then went over to Paul and said, “I need you to smile right now because that gentleman down there is annoyed.”
I told him what the father had told me and instructed him to keep that smile on his face as he could easily see Paul’s facial expressions. Paul explained to me, through gritted teeth and a forced smile, how the child’s breaststroke needed fixing, so he’d given him 15 minutes of individual coaching and then put him with the class below because they were working on breaststroke at the time. It was a perfect chance for him to practice. I told him how the child and the child’s father perceived Paul’s good-hearted intention. Through gritted teeth, Paul muttered, “You have to be kidding me.”
“Did you talk to either of them?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t think I’d have to,” he replied.
“Yes. I know. Now get up there and communicate verbally, rather than just with actions about what you were doing.” He took my cue, and everyone left, happy; however, we could have lost valuable clients if this problem hadn’t been resolved.
Now, most elements of communication were used in this scenario. But failure to verbally tell both father and son what he was doing caused a huge difference in perception of what was taking place. Paul thought he was doing them a big favour, yet they felt mistreated and angry. Phew! All elements of communication were there, and yet there we so many different perceptions of the situation that were made in each person’s mind.
Getting perception right
We always think we’re right. But sadly, we’re not. As you can see, in every conversation you have, no matter how many elements of communication are involved, your actions and words can be perceived differently. So, what does that mean for all of us as communicators? And how can we improve our connection with and understanding of people?
Here are my three takeaways for you on the topic of perception:
- Never assume that others think the way you think.
- Remember that you’re not always right. Even though we like to think so, we are all different and there is often no right and wrong.
- Always check in with people to make sure they’ve understood what you’ve been talking about.
If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to see your counterpart’s body language, how do they seem? Uncomfortable? Happy? Sad?
Listening to their voice tone, is it grumpy? Annoyed? Happy?
And try to understand their words. If necessary, get them to replay their thoughts about your conversation and check in with them that your message was received as you intended.
Each person reading this, you included, will have a slightly different take on what I’ve shared — hopefully, most of it’s good! But I hope you’ll be able to use your newfound knowledge of perception in your workplace, at home, or both!
Remember, no one sees the world exactly like you do. For better communication, you need to understand others’ perspectives too.
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